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Synopsis

The most dangerous job in the galaxy...

In war, there is no second place. To ensure victory, planetary governments employ private armies to help fight their battles. And the Berserkers are the best. As the galaxy's preeminent mercenary force, they are hired by governments and corporations to do jobs too tough, too messy or too deadly for their own forces. Expertly trained and equipped with the most advanced weaponry, they are willing to do whatever it takes to fulfill a contract -- if the price is right.

Their job was to kill and get paid handsomely for it, but being a hired gun doesn't mean there isn't a code. For the Berserkers that means taking care of their own. Captain Ron Axel finds that mantra tested to the limit when he must lead a daring mission to rescue a Berserker force trapped deep behind enemy lines on a bleak frontier world. With no margin for error, the Berserkers must fight to survive against an onslaught of hostile forces, and Axel must choose between accomplishing the mission or the survival of his men.

They stand to make the biggest payday in the galaxy...if they can live long enough to spend it.

Go Time

The Terror formed a new speck of light in the heavens as it materialized, dropping out of hyperspace transit several million miles from Novak to begin its orbital approach. Boxy and angular, she lacked the smooth, symmetrical lines and tapered hulls prevalent in newer designs. She’d seen thousands of hours of use and abuse, bore the scars to prove it. With a displacement of over 86,000 metric tons, the hulking monolith of nanosteel and composites made a floating monument to human engineering.

And a testament of humanity’s willingness to wage war.

Berserker Captain Ron Axel lay naked in his bunk, awakened by incessant beeping from the small console on the desk in his stateroom, the measured sonic assaults almost in sync with his throbbing headache. Hyperspace travel affected everyone differently, though generally people experienced headache, nausea, and fatigue. It could evoke psychological side effects as well. Though experts claimed none were long term, Axel didn’t buy it. He’d heard too many stories of spacers going crazy from too many jumps.

He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and threw his legs over the side of the bed, the smooth polymer floor chilling his feet. As he sat up, a soft object fell to the floor. He picked up the pair of black silk panties, examined them briefly before tossing them aside, and realized his headache likely had a dual origin. He never slept well anymore — his memories saw to that — and slept even worse during hyperspace transit. But those factors weren’t entirely to blame. Lieutenant Hanna Vasera, the company executive officer, had kept him up half the night.

Rubbing the back of his neck, Axel leaned over the console and noted the time: 0324. What the fuck? He wasn’t due on duty for another two hours. He hit the answer button and asked in a hoarse whisper, “What is it?”

A crewmember responded in a deadpan voice, “Sir, you have a priority hypercomm transmission in the communications center. General Breacher wants to speak with you in ten minutes.”

Shit. “Okay, I’ll be right there.”

A priority message from the boss himself jolted him into motion. He activated the cabin light strip and quickly shrugged into his jumpsuit, covering the profusion of angry scars across his back and chest. After sliding into his composite combat boots, he slipped on an empty synthos bottle discarded on the floor, and he nearly fell. He reached with a burn-scarred hand for a full stim capsule on the nightstand amidst a small pile of empties. As he put the cartridge against his neck, he saw his dark, haggard reflection in the mirror. He could pass for a decade older than his 32 standard years: his blue eyes tired and sullen, his skin deeply tanned by the rays of a myriad of suns.

He hesitated, thumb poised to squeeze the stim capsule. You don’t need it.

Tempted by a shower and laser shave, they would have to wait. Axel splashed cold water on his face and ran wet hands through his close-cropped brown hair before heading to the ship’s communication center.

Intel had briefed Axel on the political situation on Novak during transit. Two ruling factions, the Markovian Confederation in the south and the Republic of Yuridan in the north shared a 1,870-kilometer border on the planet’s central landmass. Numerous clashes between the nations over the last few months escalated into full-scale conflict over the past week, when the Yuridans attempted to seize the primary Markovian spaceport, part of a long-standing territorial dispute. Both nations kept fairly large and well-equipped militaries, but the Yuridans had secretly built up their military and hired mercenaries to inflate their ranks and improve their capabilities, borrowing heavily and effectively mortgaging their future on this gambit to establish themselves as sole trade broker for Novak’s abundant water and mineral resources.

Faced with losing their primary port, the Markovians contracted the Berserkers for help. Though technically the Berserker Corporation, governments throughout the galaxy knew them as Breacher’s Berserkers, after their founder and commander General John Breacher. But most military and civilians just called them the Berserkers, an apt name for one of the fiercest mercenary units in existence.

Anticipating the inevitable war, the Berserkers stationed a battalion in a nearby system, ostensibly on a routine training exercise. General Breacher’s intelligence officers monitored the situation on the ground while negotiating the contract with the reluctant Markovians, but with their primary means of revenue at stake, they had no choice but to pay for outside support.

Located on the dorsal spine of the ship, the comm center tied into the multiple dishes and antenna arrays on the hull. Axel jogged the four decks up from billeting, his thick-soled boots clunking the deck with dull thuds. The crew eyeballed him with curiosity or dread as he passed. He found the room’s hatch secured and keyed the intercom switch.

“Comm Center, Petty Officer Losick, state your business.”

“Captain Axel, I have priority traffic from—”

The door buzzed open. Like most ships, the Terror tended to be cold throughout, but the comm center was frigid as a meat locker. It took a few seconds for Axel’s eyes to adjust to the dim light. One of the ship’s largest cabins, the comm center nevertheless seemed cramped due to the racks of blinking servers and sophisticated hypercomm equipment covering the walls.

When he entered Petty Officer Losick flinched back, but Axel was used to that reaction. His scars carved an indefinable menace into his everyday countenance. He bore the marks of a man who had been to hell and back enough times to earn frequent flyer status.

Even in the crew’s standard dark-blue jumpsuit with her hair pulled taut into a ponytail, Losick cut a soft profile. At least she carried her extra weight well, light on her feet despite her low center of gravity.

Axel placed his finger on her data pad, confirming his identity.

She led him to the rear of the room, where two other crewmembers sat at workstations, too busy studying readouts to notice Axel. “Over here, sir.” Losick motioned to a dark-gray booth that resembled a confessional. She opened the door and gestured for him to have a seat in one of three padded, high-backed chairs arrayed around a large tridimensional holo-screen display above a green-lit console.

The faster-than-light communication array used vast amounts of power to send quantum packets of energy through hyperspace. FTL allowed real-time communication at shorter ranges with minimal lag, but it still took several seconds or even minutes for transmissions to cross vast distances, and comm was only possible if the receiver was in range of an FTL relay station.

Prohibitive expense kept it from being used for routine communication. Something big is up. The old man wouldn’t have contacted Axel via FTL otherwise.

Once Losick departed, Axel locked the door, then pressed the button to begin the encrypted transmission. General John Breacher appeared on the display after a brief lag. He earned his infamous reputation as a cold-blooded killer, one of the most fearsome warriors in the galaxy, yet he possessed the unassuming air of an accountant. His thin fringe of still-black hair sat cropped close to his scalp. Of average height, he retained his lean and muscular physique despite being over 60 standard years. Only the steel in his cold gray eyes hinted of his nature, and but for the grimly determined set of his jaw, his face betrayed no expression.

However, the man looked downright tired. Guess I’m not the only one who had a rough night.

After a momentary lag, the general spoke in a firm and concise tone: “Captain Axel, the situation on Novak is rapidly deteriorating. Major hostilities commenced some thirty-six hours ago with a large-scale incursion of Yuridan forces backed by significant mercenary support, which penetrated deep into Markovian territory toward the capital city of Saratova. Third Berserker Battalion, working with the Markovian forces, held off the main thrust of the offensive but at considerable cost. Lieutenant Colonel Olmsted and Major Vu were killed during the first day of fighting, and we sustained heavy losses that allowed part of our forward element to be encircled.

“Due to heavy electronic jamming, we haven’t been able to raise Major Dresco in the last twelve hours, presuming he’s still alive. Captain Severs at the battalion FOB north of Saratova was the last Berserker ground officer to report in. He is currently putting together a convoy of reinforcements and supplies to make contact with Major Dresco’s combat element.

You and Lieutenant Vasera need to get down there asap with combat replacements. You will personally lead that convoy to the front, and if necessary, take charge of Major Dresco’s combat elements. Master Sergeant Terres can supervise offloading of the Terror and lead the remaining elements forward once they are organized.”

Sounds like a real shit sandwich, sir. Axel recognized Dresco’s name; they shared an unpleasant history. He didn’t dread working with him again, yet he wasn’t looking forward to it either. As a knot formed in his stomach, he tried to hide his apprehension. He took a moment to choose his words before responding, opting for brevity. “Understood, sir. I’ll inform the ship’s captain.”

Axel waited for his words to reach Breacher, who remained expressionless as he likewise waited. The general continued moments later, “The Markovians are mobilizing their reserves while trying to secure more credit to cover the costs of an additional Berserker battalion. If they get their credit and have it approved by the bonding authority, we will be able to potentially turn the tide of the conflict. But frankly I’m not sure if they can do it; they could barely afford the current forces on planet.”

Breacher paused for a second before continuing. “Look, I know you’ve been through a lot, and that your B-billet at the schoolhouse was cut short for this. But this is a crucial operation for the company. I know you will do your duty, and I don’t like to second guess my men in the field, but I want to make sure one thing is absolutely clear, captain: I want you and Major Dresco to buy us some time and hold the line if possible until reinforcements arrive.” He paused. “But if the situation on the ground is unwinnable, I don’t want us losing an entire battalion for the Markovians. If surrender or retreat is the only option, then so be it. Live to fight another day, and we’ll pay the penalties for forfeiting our contract. Lord knows there will be other contracts.”

“That said, I expect you to make every possible effort to fulfill our contractual obligations and secure victory on the battlefield. If successful, expect a generous bonus. But if I find you have taken unnecessary risks and squandered our men on a fool’s errand, then heaven help you, because I will kill you myself.” The general let his words sink in, his icy gray eyes boring into Axel. “Do I make myself clear, captain?”

A thin layer of sweat dampened Axel’s brow, and he regretted not taking the stim capsule. Not that he feared the general — he didn’t fear any man — however, he never doubted Breacher to be a man of his word. He swallowed hard and tried to maintain an even tone. “Yes, sir.”

“Excellent. I know you’re up to the challenge, and you have my full confidence. Do whatever you think necessary to fulfill my orders. I expect either Major Dresco or yourself to update me on the situation as soon as a proper assessment is available.” Breacher paused before adding, “And Ron, good luck. Out.” Breacher stood on screen and terminated the transmission.

Axel continued to stare at the blank display. A bonus would be nice. Last week he checked his account balance, something he rarely did since he never spent anything. He had over C11,000,000 credits to his name. Mercenary work, especially an officer with the Berserkers, paid ridiculously well. In addition to competitive regular pay and benefits, he made more in contract bonuses than an Alliance Marine captain could earn in a year of service. Living long enough to spend it is the hard part. With a bit more money he could afford his own spaceship, perhaps a NexStar Model V, one with a decent jump drive. I could be done with this business for good. Finally be free and see the galaxy on my terms.

At least that was what he told himself.

•••

Axel relayed Breacher’s orders to the ship’s captain after the transmission. He also briefed Master Sergeant Terres, covering the orders in depth and informing him that they would be in position to launch the compliment of replacements with the Terror’s dropships in approximately six hours. Terres didn’t seem bothered about being assigned to the rear initially to supervise the offloading. He would brief the men and ensure they would be ready.

Axel reviewed a couple of the latest status reports as they became available via laser transmission from Novak. The situation down there sounded as ugly as he’d expected.

Hoping to relieve his knotted stomach and lingering hangover, Axel visited the ship’s galley a couple of hours before the drop. The line was short; not surprising, considering that the men had received double their liquor rations the night before. Not to mention what they’ll soon be facing. Axel knew from experience that a good hot meal might be a long time coming once operations commenced and figured a sit-down meal might alleviate some of his tensions about the upcoming operation. He could have eaten in the officers’ mess, but the hours were more restricted, and Axel preferred to eat with his men.

Rows of monitors lined one long wall of the rectangular galley, opposite the cafeteria-style serving line on the near wall. A couple of the holo-monitors displayed feeds from cameras on the ship’s exterior; another tracked the Terror’s route and current position. Sporting events and newscasts, all previously recorded or on a long time-delay, played on the other monitors. Metallic tables with attached chairs filled the center of the room, all bolted to the deck to prevent movement during maneuvering or loss of artificial gravity.

As Axel made his way up the line, a handful of fellow troopers acknowledged him with the greeting of the day: “Good morning, sir!”

“Carry on, men. I’m hungry, so let’s keep the line moving.”

The servers slapped a slab of soy-based protein and some insta-potatoes on his plate. He grabbed a cup of fruit, though he doubted it was real, along with a bottle of water and some bovine-based chocolate milk. He found an empty table toward the aft of the room.

Axel mechanically shoveled down the bland food as he reviewed his data pad. Though far from gourmet cuisine, he didn’t understand why some of the men constantly bitched about the galley food. He’d survived on much, much worse, particularly during his time in the Alliance Marine Corps. A goat would have turned up its nose at a plate of that shit.

Lost in thought, he glanced up and noticed more troopers and sailors filing into the chow line, along with another man standing beside his table with a full tray in hand. Axel scrutinized the lean young trooper, blond and green-eyed with a pockmarked face. NELSON read his embroidered nametape. He wore a lance corporal’s rank tab, and the patch above his breast pocked identified him as a logistics specialist.

A rookie. His boyish looks and pristine synthetic jumpsuit screamed inexperience. The saltier men wore their coyote-brown jumpsuits until they faded to khaki. Nearly seventy percent of Axel’s troopers were rookies. They had undergone three months of boot camp and six months of advanced MOS training, including a six-week training deployment before they graduated. Nine months total in the regiment altogether.

Still green. They won’t be worth shit for a while, no matter how many sims they’ve gone through. Despite advances in psychology and neural conditioning, no one could accurately predict how any man would react once they were under the hammer, but they had to pop their cherry sometime. Training was never a substitute for experience. Combat was the real teacher — and she was an unforgiving bitch.

Everyone aboard knew Axel was a veteran. Hell, he had taught some of them at the Berserker armor school, the billet he’d been pulled from for this contract. They usually stayed well clear of him due to his rank and steely demeanor. But the galley had become crowded, and Axel hadn’t expected to have a table all to himself. The kid had to sit somewhere. Axel just hoped he would let him eat in silence.

Nelson swallowed audibly. “By your leave, sir, request—”

“You’re fine; sit down.” Axel drained his milk, then resumed scrolling through intel reports on his data pad.

After he’d settled in his chair, Nelson said, “It’ll be good to be on planet, sir, and finally get to work,” He picked up his fork and warily eyed his food before digging in.

Dammit … Silence had been too much to hope for. “Well, enjoy the downtime while you can. We’ll be busy once we get down there,” Axel replied mechanically, wanting only to let his mind escape in the meal and the mission. He hoped that Nelson had picked up on his cue to pipe down. Though never a fan of small talk, Axel didn’t mind interacting with his men and getting to know them on a professional level, but now wasn’t the time for it.

“If you don’t mind me saying, sir, that looks like a lot of food before a drop. I’ve heard that it isn’t good for you, you know, if you’re wounded.”

Axel nodded and gulped down another heaping spoonful of the potatoes. His dissipating headache started to return with a vengeance. Putting down his data pad and spoon momentarily, he rubbed his temples before focusing on the young man. “Kid, it really doesn’t matter a hill of beans how much we eat. We might not get another real meal for some time, and anything that can tear through your body armor is gonna make a plate-size hole in you, so I don’t think it makes much difference one way or another.” The words came out harsher than he’d intended, and he immediately regretted his grim statement.

“Uh, yes, sir.” The young man gazed at his tray, embarrassed as he contemplated Axel’s words. He suddenly became very pale, a look of nervous foreboding etched on his face, and stood up with his tray. Before turning to leave he mumbled, “By your leave, sir.” Having lost his appetite, the young merc left his tray in the recycler and rushed out the door.

A ship’s steward bot rushed over to wipe the table where he had been sitting. “I guess he didn’t like the food,” the bot said in voice programmed to be soothing. Axel ignored the bot, attention locked on his data pad as he continued to eat.

•••

Axel returned to his stateroom and packed his deployment bag, a large rucksack made of a synthetic fabric that would stiffen into a rigid square when charged with electrical current, allowing it to double as a footlocker. Nearly everything he packed was duty related; he carried few personal items.

He donned his combat uniform, a form-fitting jumpsuit made of micro-thin layers of thermal and ballistic protection. When struck it solidified to the hardness of steel. Nanos woven into the fabric contained sensors that monitored the wearer’s vital signs, along with synthetic chromatophores that automatically provided active camouflage, matching the surrounding colors and temperature. This advanced camo feature, known as predator mode, was only utilized in the field; coyote-brown was the standard inert color of Berserker uniforms. The wearer’s movements actively recharged the suit’s micro-power cells, which provided a base level of ballistic, chemical, biological, and fire protection as well as hydrophobic protection from the elements and adequate circulation to retain or dissipate body heat as needed in a wide range of environments.

He shrugged into lightweight body armor made of jointed plasteel plates and ceramic array armor, all held in place by an elastic nano-Kevlar carrier that protected his torso and shoulders. The carrier automatically adjusted and adhered to his suit with a nearly unbreakable bond, syncing with the suit’s sensors to present the appropriate camouflage pattern. He applied similar armor plates to his legs. Pouches and equipment could attach to the suit as well. The amount of armor and equipment worn could be tailored for both mission and occupational specialty. Even with a full loadout of armor plates, the suit weighted just over 4 kilograms.

He checked his vibro-blade before sliding it into the sheath on his carrier. Satisfied that he’d left nothing behind, he grabbed his commo helmet from his locker and departed for the armory to retrieve his sidearm and submachine gun.

The armor clerk handed Axel his M-21A plasma submachine gun, along with four loaded magazines and a spare battery pack. The 10mm directed-energy weapon could punch a hole through an inch of plasteel armor and could fire underwater or in the vacuum of space. The compact, battery-powered weapon had a short barrel and a collapsible stock. Capable of single, auto, and burst fire, the extremely reliable weapon rarely jammed. Its only real drawback, the muzzle tended to rise when fired in fully auto.

Axel checked the weapon, inspected the holographic sight, and inserted a magazine. The ammo counter read 100, the full capacity of a standard magazine. He stowed the other mags in pouches on his plate carrier and headed for the loading area.

A converted military transport, one of the largest in the chartered Berserker fleet, Terror had been modified to carry a greater complement of troopers and crew, with room to spare for support vehicles and equipment. The ship still retained the bulk of its offensive weaponry, with some updates and refinements to the factory specs over the years.

Inside the vast main loading bay, Axel stood with his deployment bag at his feet, helmet in hand, staring out at the rows of tanks, infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), and shipping containers. Ship loadmasters, along with some Berserker logistics and maintenance personnel, swarmed the equipment, conducting final inspections. Chains and nets secured all vehicles and cargo to metallic skids to facilitate rapid debarkation.

Axel walked to the nearest grav-tank and slid his hand across the hull. The plasteel and ceramic composite armor felt cold and lifeless. State of the art, highly mobile, and ludicrously expensive, these antigravity battle tanks cost almost as much as a space yacht and boasted enough firepower to slag a mountain.

Axel had always considered his tank simply as a tool, a machine to carry out his will on the battlefield. Other tankers, however, became attached to their machines, superstitious of other people even touching their tanks. Though not his personal tank, Warhammer, he still conducted a walk-around pre-inspection by rote.

Even as an infantryman in the Alliance Marine Corps, he harbored a strong affection for the 120-ton grav-tanks’ deadly lines. Upon reaching tanker school, Axel found to his astonishment he had an aptitude for operating the complex machines, achieving high scores in driving, gunnery, and commanding. He joined the Berserkers with two goals: become a tank commander and leave the infantry.

Grunts didn’t survive to retirement. He remembered deploying to Malandok with the infantry, a hellish planet with creatures beyond any nightmare he’d encountered. He never wanted feel that exposed or vulnerable again.

That was a long time ago. You need to quit punishing yourself.

Axel noticed the name Hung Fun painted on the barrel of the 150mm main gun, which could fire plasma rounds, high explosive (HE) rounds, and discarding sabot rounds. “A magnificent killing machine,” he said aloud before realizing it. Yet despite their deadly sophistication, tanks were only as effective as the men inside, and the Berserkers paid for the best, man and machine alike, often losing both in combat. The price of doing business. After a final look over his shoulder, Axel returned to his bag on the deck.

He checked the personal information pad on his wrist. Go time. He headed toward the dropship bay.


Excerpt From

War Whore

Ryan W. Aslesen

This material is protected by copyright.

About the author

Ryan Aslesen is a bestselling author based out of Las Vegas, Nevada. He is a former Marine, veteran of the War on Terror, and a graduate of Presentation College and American Military University. His military and work experience have made him one of the premier writers of military science fiction. view profile

Published on January 04, 2021

70000 words

Contains explicit content ⚠️

Genre: Military Science Fiction